By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)
Part 1 – The Military Dimension
Reports have alluded to PLA transgressing the LAC and occupation of locations / heights in violation of accepted terms of the recent military agreements. One report also claimed that a clash had taken place at Galwan. There have been many reports of PLA build up and preparations in the rear areas including turnaround of the formations deployed there. Reports also indicate deployment of S400 and long-range surface to surface missiles. Further, indications are that their airfields are being improved and runways extended in Tibet besides a new one coming up opposite the Central Sector. All these reports go on to suggest that the PLA is undertaking a massive build-up. The India Today cover story by Sandeep Unnithan in its August 9, 2021 edition has given all this in terrific eye-opening detail. The larger picture which emerges is that it is suggestive of aggressive designs to attack India again soon. One must see things in the correct perspective and then draw conclusions accordingly. Otherwise, such reports undermine national morale besides building a halo around PLA capabilities and Chinese intent. There are two parts to these reports. The first part pertains to impugning transgression of LAC and occupation of certain features by PLA in violation of agreements. This part has been answered by the Indian Army unequivocally to state that there are no violations or clashes on the LAC. Further international observers have not come out with any satellite pictures to support the transgression theory. They were abundant last time around. Also, if the PLA had really transgressed as being claimed, the Chinese media, especially Global Times, would have run amok claiming to have taught India a lesson. The second part pertains to build-up by PLA and Chinese aggressive intent. This will be discussed in military and geopolitical detail. The military aspects will be discussed in this part and the geopolitical aspects which drive the Sino Indian Logjam will be discussed in the next part.
When the face-offs commenced, I had written on May 26, 2020, ‘There are two likely outcomes. The standoff ends at a table and China withdraws to resume as an unmanned LAC or we end up with a manned LAC.’ China has not withdrawn fully and we are moving slowly and inexorably to a manned LAC. The LAC has already been manned partially in eyeball to eyeball face-offs at Depsang, Gogra and Hot Springs. We are witnessing a ‘cause and effect’ cycle between two regional powers, leading to a hardened LAC as days pass. Hardening of the LAC involves additional surveillance, manning of certain posts permanently, improved infrastructure for movement, logistics, maintenance and administration, putting firepower in place, positioning reserves suitably, improving airfields and so on. What is happening on the other side tends to be clear and psychologically we discount our own efforts.
Remember that we have rebalanced a strike corps to the North. Also our infrastructure is improving accordingly as detailed out in the India Today cover story. It has been widely reported that the PLA has better infrastructure than ours. However from what one can surmise from the logistic struggles of PLA in the last one year, it was evident that their infrastructure was not operationally oriented. They are discovering it now and orienting accordingly. Our infrastructure is more operationally oriented. That is how we could mobilise and mirror PLA build up last year and sustain it without great effort. This advantage will last for a few years till PLA gains operational experience and reorients itself. We need to use this window well.
I am sure that the Chinese press must be reporting that India has offensive designs since it has swung a ‘Strike’ formation on to the LAC and what PLA is doing is only defensive in nature! The reality is that as this lightly manned border is getting denser and harder, it gives equal opportunity to both sides to take proactive or reactive initiatives. With the current force levels which are being reported, there is no imbalance to favour PLA. On the other hand, a strike Corps rebalanced even in a defensive role on the LAC opens up offensive thinking and options which were not on our horizon earlier. It improves our quid pro quo capability significantly. I would also like to reiterate what I had written earlier, ‘Any terrain allows deployment up to a level only. Beyond that, pumping in more forces results in diminishing returns. It is a matter of space, logistics, effectiveness, survivability, mobility and recuperability. In high altitudes, these factors get compounded. From a defensive perspective, India has adequate forces to thwart China. In my considered opinion, China does not have enough forces to wage a decisive war in its favour against India’. Also the much publicised Chinese Comprehensive National Power contributes only to stamina to sustain a prolonged war. It does not affect the outcomes in short campaigns/ encounters/face-offs. The chances of a prolonged Sino Indian conflict are next to zero considering that both countries are nuclear powers.
Let me reiterate. The likelihood of the Chinese returning for an offensive or raking up an issue are low. I have outlined various issues as to why this will not happen in an earlier article in February 2021. PLA simply does not have resources to overpower India. Continuing or escalating the situation with India stretches Chinese resources. Chinese focus on the LAC is at the cost of its primary maritime and continental interests on its Eastern border namely Taiwan, South and East China Seas. Force structuring is a zero sum game even for a nation like China. It cannot be strong everywhere. I suspect that they have already discovered this military fact.
There is also a school of thought that the Chinese are forcing us to focus on the continental domain at the expense of the maritime domain. To my way of thinking it is the other way around. Rebalancing a Corps to the North was always on the cards. With the relative threat levels from Pakistan decreasing and that from China increasing, the rebalancing exercise was waiting to happen. I had written about it way back in December 2017. It took the PLA to assert itself in Eastern Ladakh for this to come about. The rebalancing does not detract from our preparations and plans in the IOR. On the other hand, China has been forced to invest more in Tibet. The recent visit of Xi Jinping indicates the importance being attached now to its Western borders. The Afghanistan situation compounds the situation. As pointed out earlier, it is China which is now being forced to look towards its land borders and being forced to stretch militarily. The importance of fixing China along the LAC should not be underestimated in the larger geostrategic context.
We need to understand the air situation in greater detail. All PLAAF airfields in Tibet are in rarefied high altitudes which reduce lift capability. Their aircraft can take-off with either lesser fuel or lesser ammunition or both. It is a heavy operational cost. On the other hand most of our air bases are in plains. Also we have more bases in number to cater for redundancy. This gives us tremendous advantage. All this is well known. However there is more to it. The campaign season is normally in summer when clear air turbulence occurs on runways. At high altitudes, the sun warms the runway and the air immediately above it. Expanding hot air rises to cause an updraft turbulence and very low air density. This is known as clear-air turbulence and it’s tricky. Aircraft finds it difficult to land or take-off once this happens. Density is fundamental to generate ‘lift’ which is mandatory for flight and most important during take-off and landing. It happens beyond 9-10 am in summers till surface temperatures dip. Even the mighty IL 76 whose normal carrying capacity is around 50 tons, struggles to take off with zero loads and minimum fuel once the runway heats up. I have seen it happen far too many times. Operating fighter aircraft in such conditions is highly restrictive by time and capability. Overall PLAAF operations will be more severely hampered than imagined. In winter, the Himalayan Jet stream sets in. I have described the effect on flying and air ops of this phenomenon in an earlier article -‘short haul, high manoeuvre operational flying is another kettle of fish in a jet stream. Light weight UAVS will be extremely difficult to handle. They could be blown away if caught in the jet stream. Long range Missiles and Rockets will become inconsistent and inaccurate since their control systems might be inadequate. If targets are located on steep gradients, hill tops, and narrow valleys; guided missiles could miss their targets altogether. All fancy air operations are suspect in winter’. PLAAF has many practical difficulties. It explains as to why they have to deploy S 400 and other long range missiles. They are trying to make up the severe deficiency of air power imposed on them by the Himalayas. Relatively, the IAF does not get constrained at all. Two issues will swing the issue heavily in favour of India in future. Own S400 system should be in place later this year. As the delivery of Rafales continues, Indian air power will improve qualitatively. Add the effect of own long range and cruise missiles. The combined effect of rebalancing a Corps to the North, improved infrastructure and enhanced combat capability is a good deterrence for China to consider before embarking on another misadventure.
Does that mean all is quiet on the Northern front? No. Not at all. China being the untrustworthy nation it is, should not be taken for granted. We should expect some needle on the LAC. China will attempt salami slicing. It will attempt grey zone ops. It will create trouble and awkward situations through our neighbours, especially Pakistan. There will be heavy propaganda and influence ops. Hostile Cyber activity will continue. Threats will dominate. We need to respond with intelligence and deliberation in the new normal. However, we also need to understand the geopolitics as they are playing out in the Sino Indian context to get a better handle as to how to go about our business. It will ultimately be geopolitics, geostrategy and geo-economics which will drive military matters. That will be in Part 2…the Tang Ping will be interesting…it has not found mention in this part but will appear in the next….
-The writer was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda